"Our Karl Rove is the blog you should be glad that Democratic strategists don't seem to listen to"
-- what they're saying on Republican blogs

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Bush/Cheney the Reason for an Obama Blow-out in South Carolina?

What we've just witnessed in South Carolina looks like the New Hampshire effect all over again. But that's not even the big news. The big news is that the voters seem to have transformed in ways that are surprising to the Clinton camp.

The results are still rolling in as I'm writing this, but it looks like a wash-out for Hillary and Bill Clinton's candidacy.

Yes, I know I just outraged many people with the above statement. A Hillary and Bill candidacy? A Republican talking point! How dare I. But, you know what? That was Bill's doing. I am no Obama apologist, nor am I a Clinton hater. But the behaviors of the Clintons this week reeked of ugly desperation -- almost equivalent to what G.W. Bush did to McCain in 2000. Bill Clinton's behavior and style started allowing me to see him the way Republicans saw him in the 1990's.

And this is an important point to consider. Why am I drawn to Republican talking points to describe the Clintons? Because the Clintons create an environment ripe for such adversarial knife sharpening. And this from a guy who voted for Clinton twice. Even establishment Democrats began to be appalled by the Clintons' soft-peddling of R&R issues (Race and Reagan) in the past weeks.

The Clintons might be shocked to learn that these tactics don't seem to be working quite as well as they used to. Triangulation, R&R-baiting, destroy the opponent -- all tactics developed and honed by a frustrated "Clinton Democratic" party that witnessed the Reagan revolution and then the follow-up, Gingrich's Contract With America.

The media and many Americans are used to -- and generally expect -- this business-as-usual approach to politics. Most everyone in charge these days lived through the same events, and honed similar tools.

Yet Obama has changed the setting. Tools and tricks that used to fit and match the political decor now seem to fall flat. Strategies that used to be able to manipulate public opinion now seem to backfire.

Is it possible that the Bush/Cheney mis-administration itself is the X factor? Are we all now so keyed into being mass manipulated by this administration that we've developed a political 6th sense since the 1990s? Did Bush/Cheney actually help develop mad skills across the younger band of the electorate?


Perhaps the zero-sum game is still alive and well -- where the Misadventures of Little Bush have sharpened the electorate that was previously dulled by decades of administrations that did not routinely mislead Americans out of deliberate habit.

Hillary and Bill Clinton will either remain in their echo chamber of the 90s and plow through the only way they and Mark Penn know how to... or they will pivot and recognize that it's a new world -- a world not defined by Barack Obama, but appropriated and symbolized by him.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Democrats: Follow Your Inner Winner

Democrats running for office,

As most regular readers of this column know, OKR is not an election horse-race blog. So, don't expect a full analysis of the election escapades here. There are plenty of blogs who are more than happy to play-by-play the fun and sport of it all.

However, as a result of the current horse race, there are some key observations that I've made that I believe are worth calling out and sharing for the good of all the candidates:

Obama's Inner Winner

When Obama (narrowly) lost the New Hampshire primary, he approached the defeat like a winner -- he didn't acknowledge defeat. Instead, he acknowledged the success of his campaign, his message, and his candidacy. He did not -- and has not -- let the media's "shock and awe" of the NH results affect his campaign complexion. He didn't even acknowledge defeat in NH, which some might feel is arrogant. But is it arrogant to decide to believe you didn't lose, but rather believe that you virtually tied?

No, it's not. It's not wrong to ignore the pundits, polls, and conventional wisdom. Doing so (prudently) reflects American-style optimism. While it's clear that this AmeriOptimism is not one of the Democrats' favorite cultural attributes, it's a attitude that -- if embraced properly -- could help win elections.

Message-wise, Barack does need to take a cue from the NH loss and attenuate his rhetoric. Speech upon speech about "changing the world" is great stuff, O, but you're going to have to come down to earth once in a while to re-prove to the voters that you've got some meat on them philosophical bones. The voters need to be armed with information that you communicate verbally (i.e., not just your website) so that Hillary's attacks do not seem as jarring.

Yes, I know that details can ruin a coalition and a movement. Yes, I agree with the approach of staying above the fray, and that running on an idea is the preferable way to run a national campaign. But you're still trying to court Democrats. And, bless their souls, Democrats really do like getting caught up in the facts and details. You are going to have to give them something.

Clinton's Inner Voice

When Hillary (narrowly) won the New Hampshire primary, she told the nation that she "found her voice." Well, that's a good thing to find -- especially after being in politics for "over 35 years." Congratulations are in order, but... how long have you been looking, Hillary?

No matter -- finding one's voice is like establishing one's brand. It creates a center of gravity -- an organizing principle -- from which to grow all messages, platforms, and policies. If Hillary truly has found her voice and doesn't outsource it to her thuggy campaign advisers, she stands a chance of not only beating Obama, but representing a candidacy of meaning instead of a candidacy of policies.

Message-wise, the Hillary campaign just hired sloganeer Roy Spence, which should put the campaign message in capable hands. Hillary just has to try to keep her center close to her. In other words, Hillary, don't lose your voice to the experts around you.

Edwards' Inner Principles

John has displayed an impressive commitment to changing the dynamics of power in America. It seems quite fruitless to most of us, as the existing power structure is set up to give most of us just enough to keep us content with the corrupt and unfair status quo. Yet, John sees a trajectory of power dissemination that troubles him dearly, and is willing to go the mat to rein in unbridled capitalism.

These inner principles are actually quite forward-thinking. What John is touching on will inevitably effect more of us in the coming months and years. I just do not think that we are at the right time and place in American history to make this the central issue of a campaign.

No matter the cultural relevancy, John has shown a visceral passion for systemic change that is attractive to a lot of people (even some Republicans). If he could only broaden his focus to issues facing more Americans right now, his inner principles would be taking him much further.

In the end, Democrats are the winners.

All of this inner stuff is good for the party. The prior several political seasons have portrayed Democrats as outwardly directed -- where campaign messages and political theater have been driven by polls, punditry, and external forces (think Gore in earth tones, Dukakis in tank, Kerry in a swift boat) . Consequently, the American people tend to think of Democrats as "unprincipled" when compared to the "Polls? We don't change our views based on no polls!" Republicans.

The lesson? Focusing on the inner increases your chances of being a winner.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Candidates, Can You Spare Some Change?

Democratic Candidates (and, what the heck, Republicans too),

The media and the voters have decided that this is the election season of "change." And -- no surprise -- Barack Obama's campaign is the most directly associated with this campaign brand platform.

This is very good news for the Obama campaign, because now that virtually every politician has glommed onto this campaign keyword (see chart below), there is an implicit call back to the Obama change movement. As a result, every campaign now is -- at least indirectly -- an endorsement of the Obama campaign brand.

Advice for change-glomming candidates:

You're making a mistake by latching on to "change." It's taken, and all you're doing is showing that you can spot a successful trend, and follow it. That would be fine in a normal election season, but this season, you're in competition with Obama's campaign, which "owns" the trend. The media has written the narrative of Obama, which means that the brand has been set and will be continually reinforced (and eventually overplayed). Implicitly, voters are going to sense that trend followers are not change agents. So, while change-glomming might feel like the right thing to do, it's not.

I know, I know. You do represent change. Of course you do. Every candidate does. But the "change" brand is taken. Consider it trademarked. You need to be creative and come up with a brand that is distinctive in the political marketplace of ideas. Even messaging maven David Axelrod agrees: “unless a message authentically reflects the messenger, it’s likely to fail.”

The right thing to do is to now is to conduct a rapid brand evolution program within your respective campaigns. Assemble you key staffers (from all levels) and brainstorm and whiteboard all of the key attributes of your candidacy. Coalesce these ideas, boil them down, and settle on one-to-five words that describe why you're the best person to win the nomination --and then to be President.

You then need to map these concepts against what you think (or, preferably, know) the majority of the voters are looking for. In other words, once your find your core, distinct message, you then need to ensure that your core, distinct message is relevant.

Some examples:

  • Ready (Clinton)
  • Leadership You can Count On (Clinton)
  • Principled Leadership (Edwards)
  • Principled Change (Edwards) [and puts a knife in Obama]
  • Taking America Back (Edwards)

Advice for change candidates

This might be very difficult to digest, but you're going to need to get beyond "change" as your campaign evolves. I know, it sounds like asinine advice to a campaign that has the most successful brand of this election season. But hear me out.

You should not abandon change. But you need to build from it, creating a brand tree. This means viewing "change" as a foundational brand trunk, but then growing specific brand branches to keep ahead of curve. Keeping ahead will ensure that you avoid:

- attacks on change. The longer "change" is out there, the more time for competition (Democratic and Republican) to develop and deploy effective foils and cynicism around change.

- the "spare change" effect. Change is good, but too much change can weight down your pocket with too much of too little. Meaning, change is a big idea that doesn't mean much once you get beyond the big idea.

The good news is that there seems to be plenty of growth potential for the change brand. The challenge, though, is to define brand branches to grow from the brand trunk. This means looking at the hot political topics -- foreign policy, ecology, economy and the nation's spirit -- and developing brand platforms around each of these as extensions to the change brand trunk.

Some examples:
  • Change means: Regaining the Moral High Ground
    (foreign policy)
  • Change means: Treating Mother Earth with Respect
  • Change means: A Re-energized, In-Demand Workforce
  • Change means: One Nation, Under G*d, Indivisible
    (nation's spirit)

Advice for all Democratic candidates

There is a risk of relying too heavily on the "change" brand: a sudden shift of the political status quo could blunt its effectiveness.

George W. Bush's legacy will be firmly grounded in political success (i.e., having a Republican successor). So you need to be mindful of the potential for a shifting political dynamic in 2008. Bush will likely pull all the levers he can to create a political environment friendly to a Republican nominee. If Bush succeeds in creating a more positive outlook in 2008, "change" won't resonate as much as it does now -- just like the Iraq War doesn't resonate as much merely 4 months after it was widely considered to be the #1 campaign issue.

Number of times "change" is used on campaign websites:*

Barack Obama: 66,600
John Edwards: 23,800
Hillary Clinton: 3,670
Bill Richardson: 1,450
Mitt Romney: 952
Mike Huckabee: 795
John McCain: 347

*Conducted through a basic Google search [site:campaign_site_name change -climate] to exclude any pages where "climate change" would be the topic. Obviously, not all instances of "change" represent the campaign concept of change, and the number of hits are likely relative to the size and depth of the respective websites.